After covering CBC's Queers and Allies club's first drag show on May 25, I expected some reader backlash. Readers complain and threaten to cancel their subscriptions with reasonable frequency, and even though drag shows have become mainstream, the Tri-Cities are pretty conservative. Having written a weekly blog for nearly two years now, I was banking on countering some angry feedback as my topic for the following week.
So when only a small handful of people called and wrote in, I had mixed feelings. I was disappointed in the local bigots, who always come out en force on our online comment boards, but I was pleasantly surprised that a front page photo package about a local drag show didn't ruffle many feathers.
Then we published N. Gillette's letter, "Questionable Photo," on June 3. The writer suggested we poll our readers, so we attached an online poll to the letter and that's when the debate really started.
And while some may have been surprised that this photo dominated the front page:
or that these three are indeed men in drag:
I was most surprised at how long this dragged out.
In the poll's first day, the letter got 1,598 page views and 766 votes after the poll was added around 4 p.m. The letter was our third most read story that day, and about 72 percent of voters were in favor of running the photo.
The next day, links from The Portland Mercury and Dan Savage’s slog on Seattle's The Stranger helped lift the letter to the number one spot, with 3,694 page views and another 1,300 votes, with around 85 percent in favor.
The letter stayed in our top five most-read stories through June 9, getting a ridiculous 10,714 page views on June 8. In contrast, a breaking news story about how several Pasco elementary schools were locked down as SWAT teams looked for an armed suspect for four hours only got 6,024 page views on the same day, and the top-read story on most days only has around 2,000 clicks.
The results briefly flirted with a 50-50 split, but after the big traffic day, it swung hard toward "yes." Now, with more than 16,000 votes, 81 percent are in favor of running photos of drag shows.
I was also surprised, like executive editor Ken Robertson wrote, that the quality of debate in the nearly 100 comments remained relatively civil, by web standards. Probably the most incendiary remark was in Gillette’s original letter:
The comic nature of the picture would hardly be appropriate on the cartoon page with Peanuts, B.C. or Garfield since it would insult the talented artists who produce those comics.
Garfield? Really?! He's a cat that hates Mondays and loves naps and lasagna. I get it. While I will admit that I used to enjoy Garfield as a child, it still didn't take long for that old schtick to wear thin, and I always found the lives of the "friends" of Garfield and Friends to be much more interesting. The only "reader take away" (as Gillette put it) I've gotten from Garfield is how not to be a big wiener like Jon now that I'm a cat owner. I’m biased, but I think the photo package of the two photos above is much more interesting than any Garfield I’ve ever seen.
I was surprised once again when we decided not to run this photo as part of our photo staff's May photo showcase, which highlights photos we ran in our galleries, but not in print:
Jennifer Reed applies makeup to associate English professor Matt Mathesius prior to the Columbia Basin College's Queers & Allies student group's first annual drag show at the HUB. "I thought it would be great for all different orientations to support the club," says Mathesius, who is heterosexual and married.
I liked the message and quote from a straight participant in the show, but the photo was deemed too risqué and we didn't want to be perceived as twisting the knife we had already stuck in our most easily offended readers. My other favorites from the event just didn’t have the same snap, though this one came close:
I was afraid the headless drag queen could been seen as dehumanizing, though my intent was to focus on the crowd reaction.
This next shot just isn't interesting enough:
Ronn Campbell, an assistant professor in CBC's theater department, gets his fake eyelashes glued on. It was his first time participating in a drag show, but he teaches makeup, so the preparation wasn't foreign to him. "College is about opening your mind, exploring new avenues and being diverse," he says of the show's importance. "This is really no different than a sporting event. There's performance, there's uniforms, there's organization, there's camaraderie and there's a little competition too."
Though I thought he had a pretty interesting quote, too.
And while I like the laugh from this audience member, who had put some money on her friend's lap:
It's technically and compositionally lacking.
The surprises kept coming, as D.C.-based drag queen Stormy Vain wrote in to applaud our decision and to let us know about her Drag Queen Tupperware parties, and a reader called in Wednesday because he was having problems viewing our website. Apparently he was so offended by the drag queen photos that he switched some settings so he couldn't see images and was having trouble getting his browser back to normal three weeks after the photos ran.
What wasn't surprising, however, was how strongly the online gay community and its supporters rallied to vote on a newspaper's poll in a town they don't live in. Dan Savage, who heard about the poll after a reader sent him the link, shared his perspective via email:
"I was pleased and surprised to see, even before I sent in slog's flying monkeys, that the poll was already widely pro-photos-of-drag-queens-in-the-paper. I was, however, happy to up the pro-vote.
It goes to show, perhaps, that socially conservative readers that papers in smaller towns worry about so much don't really speak for the majorities of their readerships. They make a lot of noise, and they claim to speak for all decent people, but readers and viewers are generally more tolerant and sophisticated than they're given credit for.
People who are upset — about change, about drag queens — write angry letters. People who are pleased or just don't care, don't writer letters. Thank god the web allows for more feedback, and different ways of gathering it.”
Savage's involvement reminded me of his Santorum campaign in 2003 after then-Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum made controversial remarks in an AP interview: "If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual (gay) sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything."
After widespread outrage, Savage asked his readers to come up with sexual definition for the word "santorum." Medium story short, Savage set up a website with the winning definition, and supporters Google bombed it to become the top result for "Santorum." Needless to say, it's a slimy definition, and if you don’t remember what it was and aren't squeamish, you can read about it at this succinct Wikipedia article, or just Google it for yourself.
It's a totally subversive move that walks the fine line of brilliance without falling to the pit of immaturity and irrelevance below, and illustrates an interesting phenomenon of the Internet's role in the struggle for gay rights. They've been able to band together in the online global community to make their voices heard — even for something as trivial as an unscientific poll on a small town newspaper's website.
Diversity is much more than just black and white, and shutting your eyes to a whole demographic just because you don't like what they stand for won’t make them go away.
If anything, it will just strengthen their resolve.